Restoring & Rebuilding a Century Home

Dec. 29, 2015

In 2003 I think it was, I inquired with the Markham Heritage Board as to whether the house was Heritage Protected.  I was told it was on the List to be Designated, but not Designated yet.  I willfully pursued the Designation and later that year I met the Mayor of Markham and received my plaque, accepting it alone.   Not many individuals would likely want to Designate their home, because it means constrictions on renovations and construction for the future....but I was hellbent on getting it done because preservation is important to me, as is ancestry and our history in general.  I soon learned that the restrictions were not only in place regarding Heritage Buildings, but also, that Bruce's Creek represented Conservation Land.  Another challenge.

Fast forward a few years to 2005, when my marriage fell apart, but by some stroke of bargaining I ended up being able to keep the house.  I know now, that I got the good end of the deal and I will never complain.  But the first six months, when I was a single gal and feeling at rock bottom in my life, I learned really fast that I COULD NOT HANDLE the property, or the maintenance on the house, let alone the bills.  Things slid.  A leaking roof was one little problem.  Poor insulation was another.  A sagging concrete slab in the back that was unsightly and just murder to shovel in winter.   (Thank goodness it was summer!) Chickens and ducks that I loved dearly suddenly became an incredibly onerous task to clean their coop out, never mind the fact that a weasel or something started slowly killing them off.

And then the well dried up.

Enter Aris, a man who would soon come to love the house as much as I did.  Thank goodness for him!  He repaired things, finishing undone projects, helping me paint.   He would fill the fridge when I was traveling so that I'd come home to a stocked pantry, and he would ensure that the (new) wood stove had a roaring fire in it, to welcome me home.  I was traveling widely across the US for my job at AMD, at the time.   

The well went dry as a result of a huge de-watering project that was taking place 3 concessions below, at 16th Avenue.  I was not the only property on the street that was affected, thankfully.  I ended up at a Community Meeting wherein I stood up and demanded reparations, not wanting to accept a HydroGeologist's opinion from anyone that was currently on the Region's Payroll.   I was so very fortunate that they agreed to dig a new well for me. For a while there was a large water tank on the property which I had to pay to have filled. After having free well water for a long time, it was painful to have to pay for water!  Finally, the new well was drilled and I once again had water, from a new acquifer.  The system in the basement looked like something out of Frankenstein's lab, lots of valves and tubes and canisters, including an iron filter, potassium permanganate filter, and a UV light, to get it to potable standards.  The relief was incredible!

Aris helped to get the yard under control, wielding a weed-whacker and restoring the riding lawn mower (it is now over 13 years old and has numerous replacement parts on it but she still goes, and now I know that he has a fetish for lawn mowers).  For another three years, I would remain living at 19th Avenue, and he with his two boys up in Newmarket.  It was not possible for us to live together, so we made it work somehow... not without challenges.

In that first year of us being together, after the paperwork was complete and the house was really mine, I re-financed it to the hilt and pulled a bunch of equity out.  Thus, Phase One was commenced.  And it was no small task.  

Back in 2002, I was convinced that the tin siding on the exterior was not the original cladding that the house would have had, since records had shown it was built in 1865.  I peeled back some of that ugly tin (the kind that came in 20 or 24" interlocking squares, stamped to look like brick) and discovered the 10" wide original boards were still intact and looking in very good shape.  In fact, they even still had a coat of varnish on them.   I promptly attended a Heritage Board meeting and presented my proposal to remove the tin siding, and to restore the wood boards, and add back the missing battens.  They agreed that the original building would have had vertical Board & Batten siding, and approved my request.

The other thing that needed doing was the roof.  There were creatures living inside and the one-way traps really didn't look very aesthetically pleasing!  I was not so thoughtful (or honorable) about the roof, and went right ahead with getting it reshingled, without seeking any approvals.  I put blue shingles on, thinking it would look very quaint and would match the blue trim on the windows beautifully!   The Heritage Board said they would not have approved this, if I had asked permission.   But it was done already so they did not quibble.

And so began the arduous task of removing the old siding.  Our neighbour across the street asked if they could have it, so we had to be careful to keep it in good condition.  I say 'we' when in fact, you can guess who it was who was responsible for this huge job.   Aris spent many days working on getting it removed.   There was a nasty layer of tarpaper underneath it too.  The tin siding that was on the small side of the porch roof was different though, sporting little Maple Leaves, so I decided to leave it there as a special element.

When a house is Designated as Heritage, there are numerous rules, and one of the key ones is that you must use original materials when refurbishing anything.  So all of the new soffit and fascia had to be of wood, and the original 6 over 6 windows could not be changed.  I hired a wonderful guy to do the caulking around these windows and that caulking job has stood the test of time, almost 10 years now.  The glass in these windows is the beautiful, original wavy glass that was prevalent in those days.  

Since I was excited about the project, I contacted the local paper and they ran a story about how I was bringing the John Klein House back to its original look.   It was a proud day indeed, to have my photo in the paper, holding the board with the plaque on it.

A few months and many bucks later, the house had its new wood siding, soffit, fascia, and eaves troughs, a new roof, and a nice big deck out back.    I put it up for sale.   No offers came except one lowball which I promptly rejected!  I was still hopeful so I opted to keep it on the market a little while longer.  That's when a kid that was speeding down the road swerved to avoid a raccoon, and ended up driving through the picket fence, and the front hedge, completely destroying both of them, driving through the side yard and narrowly missing the house, and landing on the other side of the creek.   The For Sale sign was damaged beyond recognition and this was my 'sign' would never be sold.  


Dec. 27, 2015

A lifetime ago, I got a new job and decided to move from Brampton to Markham, to make the commute easier.   I would go house hunting at lunch time, by myself... I distinctly remember an early Spring day, would have been 2002, when the temperature was a balmy 15 degrees and I could drive with my window down.   That's when I saw it.   

I had been dreaming about a Century Home and this little cottage had a For Sale sign on it! Yes, it was a cottage, and not the grandiose Century Home that you might envision.  In fact, it was quite ramshackle and in need of a lot of work.   

Sitting on almost half an acre, and next to a creek, with huge trees alongside the water, it was humble yet idyllic, and seemed to be the perfect country property, complete with a flock of chickens, a rooster, and pair of mallards, and a pair of puddle ducks!  

I fell in love...and by June of that year, it was mine.   There were going to be drawbacks, I knew that going in, with eyes wide open as they say, but I didn't care, I was somehow going to make it work.   No garage, an unusable basement as it was fieldstone and prone to getting wet in the Spring, limited storage space, a tiny kitchen, well water with no filtration system, an electrical panel with only 60 amps available, an antiquated air conditioner, an unsafe wood stove, a sagging roof, and rotten eaves, soffit and fascia.

When you see a home and it is filled with peoples' furniture and looks lived in, it is easy to overlook (or not even see) what's missing, or what's wrong with the place.  We did have a full inspection, but I wasn't ready for the feeling of absolute despair when we got there on moving day and the former owners were not even moved out yet, having left many items behind, including bushels of dirt and dust.  

I cried, wondering if I'd made a huge mistake.  It did not look idyllic any more, but instead looked like a mountain of work, and a money pit to boot.  The weeding alone would take me days and days, and I was fortunate to have a good friend come over one afternoon who helped me make a huge dent in it.  Thanks Karen Cade!

The first thing I set about doing was to order a shed which would become outdoor storage. (The other storage shed on the property was a dilapidated metal shed that the doors didn't even close properly on, and it seemed to have a rat for an occupant because the smell was unbearable.  That would be for the lawn mower and gardent tools, but the other one would be for more valuable items such as sports gear.)  

Of second (but possibly greater) importance was to upgrade the electrical so I brought in my special friend Ben McFarlane to do this job.  The house did not even have a proper mast to bring the power in from the road, so this was an upgrade as well.  The electrical panel was upgraded at the same time as the new AC unit was put in.   It sure didn't hurt that I had a Project Management background in Facilities!

Next was to set about making the basement a little more usable.  Wooden skids were brought down to ensure that items weren't sitting on the cement floor.  The amount of mildew on the stones was terrible, and what paint that was there, was peeling and flaking off badly.  I set about to scrub it all off, and to repaint the stones, and the cement floor.(Have you ever painted a stone wall?  It's not fun, as it's all uneven so it must be done by hand.)   

The oil furnace had two indoor tanks in that basement, and I'm recalling now how we had to cut them in half to remove them, as the smell of oil that had leaked in the basement was unacceptable.  They were pulled out and a new tank was installed outside.

The tears on that first day were compounded not only by the dust and dirt and items left behind that had to be thrown out, but by an overwhelming smell, which I knew was cat poop.   I couldn't figure out where it was coming from though, until I discovered that the front of the house was sitting on a crawl space about 2'-0" high, and that the cats who lived there before had been somehow using it as a litter box, climbing over the wall from the basement.   I donned a ball cap, coveralls, gloves, steel toed boots and a mask (I am not a fan of spiders) and crawled in, scooping as much of it up as I could.  The wood beams holding the house up were impressive!  But the sawed off tree trunks that were supporting the beams kind of gave me pause.

My ex and I lived there for almost three years, making small improvements but never really tackling the big stuff.   When we split up just about exactly three years later, there was a lower bathroom that was under renovation, almost completed.  It would be a little while before a new man in my life would come in and finish it up.